In The Long Call, Cleeves creates the atmosphere of quaint Barnstaple village, which lends a dramatic backdrop to the life of Chief Investigating Officer Matthew Venn. Matthew, a "wearer of suits and sober ties," is haunted by the death of his father, a member of a cult-like religious group. Raised in the Brethren, Matthew has long since turned his back on the group, maybe because he's gay and perhaps because he's spent so much time trying to push away the guilt that still lurks. Luckily he has Jonathan, the love of his life, always by his side.
Matthew's new sergeant, Jen Rafferty, has called him to a scene at North Devon River at the Torridge, Crow Point. There lies the body of a young man identified as alcoholic drifter Simon Walden, whose death at first glance appears to be a mugging gone wrong. Walden had been hanging around the Woodyard, its theater, studio space, bar and café a panacea for adults with a learning disability. Jonathon's complicated involvement with the Woodyard doesn't stop Matthew from interviewing artist-in-residence Gaby Henry. Apparently Simon Walden suffered from depression and alcohol dependence, though there'd "been a huge improvement since he started living here." When Gaby first met him, she thought he was "odd and creepy." She wanted him out, but her mentor, Caroline Preece, invited him to stay at the Hope Street rehab center, just like one of her "lost sheep."
While Simon's death might be a matter of indifference to the locals, more troubling to Matthew, Jen and Ross, Mathew's new "golden boy," is the mystery behind Simon's destination before he died. He had traveled back to Lovacott on the same bus as Lucy Braddick, a girl with Down syndrome. Simon was the perfect client, a man Caroline had "thought she'd fixed and made whole again." Perhaps Simon had been a predator, a stalker, quite different from the man Caroline believed him to be? What brought Simon to Lovacott? Why had he wanted to stay completely sober and in control?
Matthew and Jen's interviews with Maurice Braddick, Lucy and her friend Rosa at the Woodyard; the photo of the man who lived in Ilfracombe; and Simon turning up at St Cuthbert's, drunk and acutely depressed--these scenes give the novel a ready-made scent of the Vera Stanhope and Shetland series, though Detective Venn is not quite as charismatic as DCI Stanhope and Jimmy Perez. The tone here seems much more low-key, though as Jen remarks, Matt is refreshing with his "lack of macho bullshit."
While Matthew and Jonathon's loving marriage is important (as is Matt's estranged relationship with his mother), more central are the stunning North Devon locations, a fusion of the wild and untamed described in Cleeves' hauntingly beautiful prose. This makes The Long Call--part missing-person, part murder-mystery--well-worth reading, even if the outcome is a little underwhelming. Matthew certainly proves his mettle as he links Simon to Susan Shapland and a little cottage on a creek running in from the Taw, and to Colin Marston at the toll keeper's cottage not far from where Simon's body was found on the edge of the marsh.
Cleeves knows how to tell a good story, and her plots are always complex and believable (I'm looking forward to the series BBC television adaptation). From Simon's suspicious money transfer and the disappearance of Christine Shapland to the cover-ups by Chief Brethren, Dennis Salter and the strange behavior of his wife Grace, there are just too many people circling around each other without quite touching. Matthew has no evidence that Simon knew either Christine Shapland or Dennis Salter. The image Matthew creates of Simon seems even more insubstantial, slippery and shifting with every conversation about him.
From Maurice Braddick's description of a battered and humiliated Grace, it's clear there was drama in the last weeks of Simon's life, that he'd made a discovery that was going to lead to his death. In her series debut, Cleeves unfurls one of her more elaborate, complicated outings to date with a range of characters who represent the many facets of life in the windswept but always gorgeous North Devon landscapes.